Hello, friends! I know it’s been a while since an update, but with the new year I’m hoping to do a little better blogging regularly. More on that later, though, because today I’m pleased to welcome Matthew W. Quinn back to the blog to talk about the Asian influences in his new novel, Battle for the Wastelands. Matthew, take it away.
I often describe my new novel Battle for the Wastelands as a “Weird Western” or “Dark Tower meets Game of Thrones.” Like Stephen King’s Dark Tower series there is a very Western vibe (with a strong emphasis on guns), protagonist Andrew Sutter’s hometown of Carroll Town is in an environment very similar to West Texas, and although the overall societal level is around that of 1880, there are relics of a more advanced age worth killing for. However, although most of the cast resembles 19th Century Anglo-Americans, there is ample precedent for the events of the story, not in the history of the United States or Europe, but Asia.
First and foremost of these precedents is Battle’s ultimate villain Grendel, first lord of the Northlands. Through war and political marriage he becomes lord of the region of Sejera in the western part of the continent and uses that as the base for further conquest, including the Basin, a region possessing substantial industrial capacity. Ultimately he becomes lord of all between the mountains to the north, the Iron Desert to the south, and the seas on either side. This is analogous to the ancient Chinese state of Qin that seized the Sichuan Basin, known for its valuable farmland and is very difficult to invade from outside. This conquest was a major stepping stone in the rise of the dukes of Qin from a regional power to the first Imperial Chinese dynasty. However, though Grendel ended an age of constant war much like how the Qin Dynasty ended the Warring States period, his rule is harsh, and those who have studied Asian history know where this is likely to go.
Grendel enforces his domination by imposing a monopoly on “Old World” weaponry like recognizably modern assault rifles. He uses these weapons to equip his elite Obsidian Guard, a large force that functions very similarly to the late and unlamented Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard. Only Grendel himself and his close allies are allowed these weapons, a monopoly enforced by crucifixion and other terrible punishments. The model for this is the “sword hunts” of Japan, in which a victorious warlord sends his armies throughout the countryside to confiscate weapons so that nobody else may seize power like he did. The “sword hunts” of shoguns Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi had a more sinister purpose — not just ensuring their own personal rule, but the dominance of the samurai caste over all others, especially the peasantry. Grendel explicitly states that his government depends on his large military being supported by the productivity of civilians.
And Grendel’s personal life is more reminiscent of the Middle East and East Asia where powerful men have historically had more than one wife. After the death of his wife Lin Cao, Grendel never formally remarried, instead taking multiple women as concubines. Although the seniormost, Signe Allansdottir, is content to serve as eldest son Falki Grendelsson’s stepmother and ensure he looks out for her children upon his ascension, this cautious outlook is not universally shared. Grendel’s younger concubine Lenora Starr seeks the advancement of her own son Logmar, rousing the insecure Falki’s paranoia. Meanwhile Catalina Merrill, another one of Grendel’s concubines, fears her own young son would be killed in any succession struggle while enduring the ugly jealousy of Cora Wilkes, another of concubine who has given Grendel a daughter and not a son. Historical examples of this type of intrigue include Alexander the Great’s Afghan wife Roxana’s killing her husband’s Persian widows to ensure her own son’s succession and how the Empress Wu rose from the rank of concubine to become China’s only female monarch (the Chinese imperial harem in general was notorious for intrigue). The shenanigans of the Ottoman harem are most well-known to Westerners, with Ottoman Emperor Suleiman the Magnificent’s concubine Hurrem Sultan persuading her husband to execute his oldest sons (and may have conspired in other deaths) to ensure her son became the next ruler. Although Grendel is Genre Savvy enough to have his concubines’ food laced with low doses of contraceptives to reduce the likelihood of too many rival heirs, this is going to have consequences down the road.
So even though Battle resembles a Western or a Civil War story, it draws on a much older and vastly different historical tradition. I hope fantasy enthusiasts enjoy reading it as much as I did plotting it.
Matthew W. Quinn is a writer and history teacher — the latter of which shouldn’t be much of a surprise based on this article — from Atlanta, Georgia. Battle for the Wastelands is his third novel after The Thing in the Woods and Little People, Big Guns. He is an active participant in the film podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood.